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Editorial: Criticism of Burgum's travel spending misses the mark

It seems that nothing stokes populist anger more quickly than perceptions that public officials are traveling irresponsibly on the public dime. That's especially true in North Dakota, where prairie frugality is engrained in the culture. But sometimes perceptions can gallop well ahead of the facts.

Here are some facts to keep in mind. The two-year travel budget for the North Dakota governor's office, with a staff of 18, is $55,000. A third of the way through the budget biennium, travel spending for the office was $247 short of one-third of the budget. So the idea that Gov. Doug Burgum's administration has been heedlessly burning through its travel budget is misinformed. That's despite the fact that the governor, first lady and lieutenant governor have made multiple trips to Washington, at the invitation of the White House, for discussions on issues important to the state, including farm trade policy and opioid addiction. The governor and his cabinet also have visited 15 or 16 North Dakota towns as part of his administration's Main Street Initiative to strengthen communities.

So, you might ask, how have Burgum and his administration traveled so much and yet stayed within the office's Spartan budget? The answer is that Burgum, the first lady and Lt. Gov. Brent Sanford have paid some of their travel expenses—including the governor's Washington trips—out of their own pockets, in effect subsidizing the operations of state government. Yet the governor's travel spending recently has surfaced as an issue. State Auditor Joshua Gallion's office is conducting a performance audit of Burgum's "travel related expenses." The announcement of the performance audit comes just after a routine financial audit of the governor's travel spending found no blemishes.

Let's be frank about where this is coming from. During the campaign, Burgum was blunt in criticizing elected officials for allowing the state budget to balloon during the oil boom and when commodity prices were high. Scrutinizing the governor's travel budget is petty payback for his valid criticism. The Legislative Council also has asked for details on conferences the governor's office has organized, including his administration's Reinventing Recovery initiative, that brought in national speakers and enabled professionals who attended to earn continuing education credits. Those efforts were made possible through private sponsorships by organizations including Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Dakota, Sanford Health and Dakota Medical Foundation. So taxpayers clearly got a bargain.

Governors have to travel. They make appearances and conduct meetings all over the state. They travel to conferences. They travel to Washington to advocate on behalf of the state. Travel, in short, is essential to a governor's job. Often, air travel is the most efficient transportation mode, given the demands on a governor's time. We shouldn't begrudge that. We should thank those who serve as governor for working so hard on our behalf, a job that often takes them away from home.

Accomplishments, not the size of a governor's travel budget, should be the benchmarks for evaluating a governor's performance. We dont want our governor to sit in Bismarck and not leave his office. The job of the governor requires him to be around the state and Burgum has done that.

Editorials represent the views of Forum management and the Editorial Board.

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